It was supposed to be a discussion about house prices. But somehow it devolved into PC Leader Doug Ford and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne bickering over who was kowtowing more to developers.
Finally, Andrea Horwath stepped in.
"I think the question was about affordable housing for young people," the NDP leader scolded. "Let's remember what we're talking about."
It's not the sort of headline-making zinger we look for in election debates. But Horwath accomplished the one thing she needed to in Monday night's provincial election debate: remind voters that New Democrats are a viable alternative.
'The centre of interest'
The first debate attended by the three major-party candidates ahead of the June 7 provincial election wasn't a game changer, which is no surprise given the campaign doesn't even officially start for another day.
Still, of the three leaders, Horwath came out of Monday night's 75-minute debate ahead of where she was when she went in.
"She will now be the centre of interest," said Geneviève Tellier, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa. "Even if you didn't think you wanted to vote for her, you're more likely to pay more attention to her now."
Horwath's performance was not flawless. Her team must have told her to smile, because she had a wide-eyed grin pasted on during her opening statement. (Everyone's opening remarks were poor, with Wynne looking slightly dour and Ford stilted.)
And the NDP's plan to buy back Hydro One from the private sector — which Wynne referred to as "magical thinking" — is vague at best.
But Horwath seemed genuine in responding to pre-selected members of the public who asked questions during the debate, which was organized and broadcast by the City television network. She seemed personable and reasonable (if you consider raising taxes on corporations to fund your platform to be reasonable).
Her go-to move was to stand apart from Ford and Wynne, literally point at them and say, "We don't have to choose between bad and worse; we can actually have change for the better in our province."
Wynne solid, if lacking spark
Wynne showed her usual mastery of policy, perhaps a bit too much at times.
Granted, defending five years' worth of government decisions does not lend itself to pithy quotes. And it's hard not to get into the weeds when battling half-truth assertions about, say, whether new legislation opens the door to privatizing policing. (A new Police Services Act will allow cities to hire civilians for things like crime prevention and traffic control.)
But Wynne allowed her inner policy wonk out on a few occasions. At one point, she talked about "inclusionary zoning" to help municipal governments compel developers to build more affordable housing. It was only a passing reference, and it shouldn't be a mark against you to speak like you understand your own policies, but it sounds a bit too high-falutin' when you're up against an opponent who boasts about rooting "for the little guy."
She told Ford that he can't simply use a campaign slogan as a policy. But she also can't use a policy as a slogan.
"If you're inclined to support the Liberals, she spoke very effectively," said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data. However, polls show that eight in 10 Ontarians want a change in provincial leadership, he said, and if this debate was supposed to convince voters otherwise, "Kathleen Wynne didn't do that."
Ford against safe injection sites 'in neighbourhoods'
Not that Ford had his best outing either. The uncontested front-runner at the moment, Ford can be sharp in a one-on-one interview, but a formal debate? Not his forte. Of the three candidates, Ford is the least experienced in this debate format and it showed. His prepared statements were stiff, and near the start he stood silently while Wynne and Horwath sparred between themselves.
But the bar for success for Monday's debate was low for Ford. Considered by some to be unpredictable, Ford kept a respectful tone, aside from a weird moment when he told Wynne, "You got a nice smile on your face there, Kathleen."
The format of the debate had candidates standing quite close to each other the entire time, and without a podium. Ford appears to have found himself awkwardly staring directly at Wynne before asking her a question.
Whatever was going on, it was awkward.
Some of Ford's policies continued to evolve, possibly even during the debate. Where he once suggested legalized marijuana be sold through private shops, he now wants to sell it from inside provincial liquor stores. And he caught some observers off-guard by saying he "will not have safe injection sites in neighbourhoods," as earlier in the day his party had said they'd be consulting with experts on the issue. It was unclear what Ford's policy would mean for cities where supervised injection sites, which are legal, are already operating.
Both Wynne and Horwath were successful in hounding him about how he would pay for his promises to lower corporate taxes, reduce hydro bills, find $6 billion in "efficiencies" in the budget over three years, shorten hospital wait times and — new Monday night — spend an additional $5 billion on transit, all without laying off a single provincial employee. He did not have a convincing answer, and often responded with assertions that the Liberals had mismanaged the province for 15 years.
Sorting out the costing and other details of Ford's platform will become key points of focus for pundits in coming days. But now they'll have an additional focus: whether this debate has alerted Ontarians looking for change to the possibility of NDP's Andrea Horwath.